THE mother of Raychel Ferguson has said her daughter “would have been alive today” if medical and legal authorities had acted differently.
Raychel (nine), from Coshquin, Co Derry, died from hyponatraemia - an abnormally low level of sodium in the blood - at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children on June 10 2001.
The day before her death, she underwent an appendix operation in Altnagelvin hospital in Derry.
A 14-year inquiry into the hyponatraemia-linked deaths of five children in hospitals in Northern Ireland in 2018 found that four of them, including Raychel’s death, were avoidable.
Raychel’s mother Marie Ferguson told an inquest in Derry courthouse today that had the earlier deaths been properly highlighted, her daughter would not have died.
“I think in our case it was a medical cover-up that led to a legal cover-up,” she said.
She added: “We have discovered that the Belfast Trust and the DLS (Directorate of Legal Services for the public health and social care sector) played a big part in this… if they had not covered up the three deaths…I believe Raychel would have been alive today”.
The new inquest, the second into Raychel’s death, was being held following the 2018 hyponatraemia inquiry, led by Mr Justice O’Hara.
Duty of candour
As part of his recommendations, the High Court judge said that a statutory duty of candour, which would compel healthcare professionals to admit failings, should be introduced.
Speaking during the last day of oral evidence in the inquest today, Mrs Ferguson said she wanted a duty of candour to be introduced in Raychel’s name.
“I do believe that duty of candour… would prevent public inquiries costing X amount of pounds and a second inquest,” she said.
She added: “Every parent just wants the truth. If we had been told the proper truth back then it would have saved us years of heartbreak.”
Mrs Ferguson said following Raychel’s appendix operation the family became deeply concerned after she repeatedly vomited and complained of a headache.
However, she said those concerns were dismissed by nursing staff, even after Raychel began to vomit blood.
“Our concerns weren’t taken on board at all,” she said.
Raychel’s father Raymond, who gave evidence alongside his wife, told the inquest: “She said to me Daddy, Daddy, my head’s wile sore.”
Mrs Ferguson said she was upset to have been asked at the first inquest that if “Raychel was that sick why did you leave her”.
She said she never would have left Raychel’s bedside if she had known how ill she was.
“We couldn’t do any more… Raychel was dying in front of us,” she said.
Mr Ferguson added: “But we didn’t know that.”
Mrs Ferguson asked coroner Joe McCrisken if Raychel’s cause of death could include the finding “hospital-acquired hyponatraemia”.
Mr McCrisken is due to receive written submissions ahead of a further hearing on June 23 in Belfast.
Outside the inquest
Speaking outside the inquest, Mrs Ferguson said the duty of candour “needs to implemented immediately and I’d like it to be called Raychel’s Law”.
She added: “As a parent, there’s nothing worse than losing a child.”
Mrs Ferguson said her experience of the second inquest had been better than the first inquest in 2003.
“I feel a sense of relief... We all make mistakes," she said.
"As I said in there (the inquest) the only thing that I wanted was the truth about Raychel.”
She said she hoped that “some lessons had been learned” and felt that the family’s long battle for answers “was finally getting there”.
Mr Ferguson, who was also speaking outside the inquest, said he will never forget sitting on a hospital bed with Raychel.
“That will stick with me for the rest of my life,” he said.
Earlier, the inquest heard from Dr Michael Curran, now working as a GP, who was a junior house doctor (JHO) in Altnagelvin at the time of Raychel’s death.
Dr Curran said that on June 8 2001, the day he saw Raychel, he was working a 24-hour shift as a medical JHO in the day and a surgical JHO at night.
On the evening of June 8, he was contacted by a nurse to administer an anti-sickness drug to Raychel, after she vomited. He said he was not informed how many times Raychel had been sick.
“I was under the impression that this was seen to be normal post-operative vomiting,” he said.
Dr Curran said he had only been in a paediatric ward a dozen times and had never given an anti-sickness drug to a child before.
“My experience of paediatrics was very limited,” he said.
He said he relied on nursing staff to give him an accurate impression of a patient’s condition.
“You’re entirely reliant due to time pressure and frankly inexperience,” he said.
He said he gave Raychel a “limited assessment” including checking her temperature, pulse and tummy.
Dr Curran said if he had been told Raychel had thrown up ‘coffee ground’ vomit – dark vomit with blood in it - it would have been a “red flag”.
He accepted that such vomit had been noted in Raychel’s fluid chart but said he did not look at it.
“The role of the JHO was primarily doing tasks,” he said.
He said he did not query the fluids Raychel was given.
“From what I know solution 18 (a fluid Raychel was given) seemed to be used (in paediatrics) and I wouldn’t have queried it,” he said.
Dr Curran said he had also “never seen post-operative hyponatraemia”.
Counsel for the Ferguson family, John Coyle, said they “wanted to thank you for the care you showed Raychel that night”.
“They bear you absolutely no animus,” he said.
The inquest also heard from Robert Gilliland, who was a consultant surgeon at Altnagelvin at the time of Raychel’s death.
He was the named consultant surgeon for Raychel’s admission for surgery but did not see her at any point in Altnagelvin.
Mr Coyle asked Mr Gilliland about a critical incident meeting held on June 11 2001 after Raychel’s death.
When asked if he had raised the legal implications of the death with colleagues, he replied: “I don’t recall that.”
He said “there was no intention whatsoever to hide things” at the meeting.